Armitage, a small town in eastern Ohio and the home of the Pendragon clan, is the nominal geographic location of Runes, a play for 4 men and 3 women. The unit set is created with “a few wooden chairs and benches, a bed, a small desk, . . . wooden tables . . . a counter . . . with an old dark mirror behind it,” and steps leading to an upstage level. We hear the sound of wind blowing as the lights come up on Vonnie Wolf, 16, sitting in jail C and casting small, flat stones onto the table in front of her. In the shadows upstage is Matt Armitage, 48, the town lawyer. Arthur Wolf, 39, sits behind the counter of Love’s General Store DR, with Evangeline Love Wolf, 36, at the desk in the storeroom UR, and Nancy Wolf, 18, on the bed UL. Jonas Wolf, 17, and Harry MacBeth, 47, sit at a table in the Flowers Boarding Hotel DL. Vonnie talks about the casting of runes and Matt tells her that the Sheriff is going to charge her with the murder of her father, Arthur. Then, at an earlier time, Arthur asks Vonnie what is wrong with her, saying that she has been worse since she performed in Romeo and Juliet. Matt, at the jail, asks Vonnie if the baby she is carrying had anything to do with what happened to her father. The action then shifts to Jonas telling Harry how Doc McGort took him on house calls. Harry tells Jonas to go away to medical school and Matt steps into their light telling Jonas that he needs his help to save his sister, Vonnie. Jonas insists that Vonnie didn’t kill anyone. Harry tells Matt that Jonas has been seeing Margery Frost every night for months. Matt asks if they know who the father of Vonnie’s baby could be. Arthur comes out of the shadows of the store to order his son to stay away from the Frost girl. He tells Jonas he doesn’t need to go to college to run the store. He warns him about women, saying that he can’t get Jonas’ mother out of his head. The mother, Evangeline, then moves into the light, reprising an old quarrel, as Jonas moves into the shadows. She tells Arthur that he only married her to get her father’s store. He agrees, saying that she was pregnant with someone else’s child, Nancy, who is a simpleton. Vonnie enters their space, agreeing that everybody hates Arthur. As she moves upstage her parents continue quarreling, Evangeline pleading with Arthur to make some sort of contact with their children before it’s too late.
The light fades on Evangeline and we see Nancy folding laundry in the bedroom above as Matt, Jonas, and Harry continue talking about the murder. Jonas says that Nancy heard the shot, discovered the body, and ran to get the doctor. Vonnie asks Nancy why she does everything Arthur wants since he treats her like a slave. Nancy says that Arthur misses their mother badly and talks to her at night as he drinks in the store. She says that Arthur just needs to be loved and Vonnie tells her that if he hurts her she will kill him. Matt, Jonas, and Harry talk about Arthur prowling the store at night with a lantern and a shotgun, and Vonnie talks with Arthur who says he keeps hearing something moving around in the store at night. He tells her he doesn’t understand her and that we love people who make us suffer the most. Harry goes up the stairs to the bedroom where Nancy is lying on the bed as Jonas tells Matt that Harry wants to own the store. Matt asks Jonas if he knows why his mother left after so many years.
In the storeroom Vonnie asks Evangeline why she is afraid to be alone in the storeroom at night. Evangeline says that years ago she heard the bell ringing above the door of the store and heard footsteps as an intruder came towards her in the dark. He pushed her down on the bolts of cloth and raped her, a memory that does not go away. Vonnie thinks that Nancy should be told that her father was not a handsome Bible salesman who loved her mother. But Evangeline says that people need lies to believe or they go crazy. She wants Vonnie to promise to protect Nancy. We hear the bell ringing above the store door and the lights fade out, ending the first act.
Act Two begins with the sound of wind and a ticking clock as we see Harry standing by the bed where Nancy is lying. Matt and Jonas are DL in shadows. Vonnie sits C in the jail, Arthur is at the counter, and Evangeline upstage in the storeroom. Harry tells Nancy that Matt needs to talk with her about Vonnie. Nancy tells Matt that she was having a bad dream when she was awakened by a gunshot. She went downstairs and found Vonnie covered in blood holding Arthur in her arms, crying and telling her to run to get the doctor. Nancy says she doesn’t know anyone that Vonnie could be protecting. The scene shifts to Vonnie and Arthur talking about her playing Juliet. He doesn’t understand why she enjoys pretending to be other people. Nancy comes down the stairs asking them to stop arguing. When Jonas enters, the four of them, under Arthur’s prodding, talk about their belief and non-belief in God and life after death.
Our attention shifts to Matt coming down the stairs to the Hotel area where Harry is drinking. Matt says he doesn’t think Vonnie killed anyone and Harry says he better get her off before the Sheriff charges her. Matt moves into the light of the jail area with Vonnie and Jonas. Vonnie tells Matt that he is trying to make sense out of the irrational, that she likes runes because they show her how desperate people are to make sense out of meaningless events because that’s how their brains work. Matt asks if Arthur was ever violent with them and why their mother ran off. Harry enters their space to tell Matt that Loopy Rye, the village idiot, has something important to say to him about the mother, Evangeline.
At night in the store, Arthur wanders, drinking. The shotgun is on the counter. Nancy comes down the steps saying she thought she heard someone crying and realizes it was Arthur. He tells her to go back to bed but she says he was crying for Evangeline. She tries to comfort him, holding his head to her breasts as if he were a child. The bell above the store door rings and Jonas enters, asking Arthur what he is doing. Nancy goes up the steps to lie down on the bed. Arthur warns Jonas about being trapped into marriage by the Frost girl and Jonas tells him to stay away from Nancy. Vonnie moves into their light, telling Jonas to leave, and asks Arthur why he stays up every night drinking; she asks him if he killed Evangeline. He says that she ran off, that she had run off before when the children were younger and that he brought her back so the children would have at least one parent to love. He tells her he never knew what was going on in Evangeline’s head. Vonnie gets dizzy and he helps her sit. She says she is pregnant but Arthur doesn’t believe her at first. She refuses to tell him who the father is and says she is not going to marry anyone. Arthur tells her that he tried to be a good father, particularly to Nancy, but her mother’s rape always got in the way. He says that he always loved Evangeline, but she only settled for him after she was pregnant and desperate.
Lights come up on the DL area, now a farmhouse kitchen where Evangeline sits sewing a quilt. Matt tells her that Loopy Rye told him she was at the Nairn farm. Matt asks her if she was at the store the previous night. She says she still has a key and likes to walk around the store at night, except in that room in the back where something terrible happened. She tells him to ask Harry, that Harry knows about the bell above the door. In the jail Matt tells Harry that he has just had an enlightening conversation with Evangeline and that Harry is going to put Jonas through college and medical school, set up a trust fund for Vonnie and Nancy, and bribe the Sheriff to declare Arthur’s death an accident. If not, Matt says, he will tell Harry’s wife, Evangeline’s sister, that Harry raped Evangeline. Harry will also see to it that Evangeline is taken to a place where she can be helped. Vonnie comes in and learns that she is going to be released. Matt tells her he had a conversation with her mother and knows what Vonnie saw and why she lied. She tells Matt that his son, David, is not the father of her baby.
In the last scene, Evangeline is at the table in the Nairn farmhouse DR and Arthur is across the stage at the store counter. Evangeline says that although she loved her children, sometimes she had to get away, but she couldn’t bear the thought of having left them with Arthur. He says, “I know.” She says he was a monster for loving her after what she had done, after what had happened to her. To love her after that was unforgivable. She says she came home, found the shotgun on the counter, with Arthur asleep at the table. Waking, he looked at her with tears running down his face because he was so glad to see her. She raised the gun, she says, and pulled the trigger.